Tuesday, October 16, 2007

CONSUMPTION, EXPRESSION, IDENTITY

CONSUMPTION, EXPRESSION, IDENTITY
By Keith Giles

As a society, we are conditioned to find our identity in what we own or purchase. As Christians, we are conditioned to express our faith through the sanctified products we purchase, own or consume. This is the perversion of Christ into Capitalism and an expression of faith through consumption of products. It is wrong.

A good friend sent me an article he found that provided an intriguing historical perspective on our evolution from artisans to consumers. I've pulled out the quotes I found most fascinating below:

"A Short History of Consumption
With the rise of the Industrial Revolution, the relationship between people and the goods that they made was broken. No longer did peasants plant, tend, and harvest their crops; now agricultural workers labored over someone else’s crops in exchange for wages. No longer did artisans design, plan, craft, and sell; now factory workers repeatedly carried out a single step in the production of a product, again in exchange for wages."

"In short, people were no longer producers, they were now consumers."

"Our identities were no longer tied up with the work we did, but with the buying power our work left us with."

"So people found their identities not in their work but in the things they could buy by working."

"People became consumers, not just in the way they got what they needed but in who they felt themselves to be."

"Unlike the artisan who could express his or her identity through the things s/he created, we have learned to do so through the things we buy"

(Full article linked below)
http://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifestyle/blog-action-day-you-the-consumer.html

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The entire article is mainly looking at consumption from an environmental impact perspective, but the points made about our lifelong indoctrination to consumerism as a society are very eye-opening to me. Especially in light of the ongoing series of articles I've been writing lately regarding the evils of the Christian Subculture over on my weekly e-newsletter [Subversive Underground].

Here's what I think we need to understand, as followers of Jesus, regarding the observations made in this article above.

CONSUMPTION IS SELF-EXPRESSION
We, as a society, have made consuming and purchasing products part of our identity structure. This is why people will fork out $30 for a t-shirt with some corporate logo and walk around as a billboard for them, not because they love that company or product, not because of their loyalty to the brand, but because they think that logo makes THEM look cool. It says something about them, and so they willingly become walking advertising...and they PAY for the privilege. Amazing.

CHRISTIAN IDENTITY
Honestly, this really does help me to formulate a clear picture of what's going on in the Christian subculture. We're finding our identity as "Christians" in the products we purchase. These products brand us and identify us as a subset of people. Instead of finding our identity in Christ by the way we relate to Him daily, obey His teachings, and emulate His example of service and unconditional love, we now identify ourselves as Christians by our t-shirts, bumper stickers, books and CD collections.

ARTISTS AND CONSUMPTION/IDENTITY/EXPRESSION
It's also fascinating how this shift in our society stems from the devaluing of artisans in our culture. People now express themselves by what they own or purchase more than by what they create with their hands or their imaginations. Artists within our society are influenced by this consumerist identity structure. Artists of faith are compelled to create art that can be sold, or that conforms to the acceptable Christian marketplace. Art in this context is devoid of pure self-expression, unless that expression conforms to the acceptable branding and messaging of the sacred market.

More from the article:
"The rise of consumption as our primary interaction with the rest of our society has had profound effects. For example, social status is obtained and marked by the things we buy and use. A car, for instance, is not just a way to get from one place to another but has to “say something” about who we are — and even the lack of a car says volumes. Unlike the artisan who could express his or her identity through the things s/he created, we have learned to do so through the things we buy: the t-shirt with the logo of our band or team, the bamboo towels that show our environmental commitments, the alternative album that shows off our indie cred, the designer shoes that place us as part of the trend-setting elite, the minivan that shows us to be part of the dependable, hard-working, family-oriented suburban middle class, and so on."

SUBCULTURE AND IDENTITY
The Christian Subculture has a market. That market embraces a brand. That brand has a message connected to it. That message serves the market and encourages ongoing participation in that market. It means providing reasons to continue purchasing these products day after day and week after week. The market serves itself. It exists to keep itself in business.

The Christian Subculture provides an oasis made of soothing products that help us escape from the Big Bad World that is "Out There". It's a sacred version of "Calgon-Take Me Away!" only our message is more pervasive. It's not just one soothing bath to calm our fears of being trapped in a world of sin, it's music and movies and clothing and books and toys and key chains and license plate frames and decals and candy and pens and pretty much every conceivable object and piece of product that can ever be branded with our message. It's nearly a complete world unto itself, and it's exactly what Jesus prayed to God would never happen to us. (see John 17:15)

THE CART THAT PULLS THE HORSE
I'm not against art or music or expressions of faith. Most of my favorite musicians are believers and their music contains references to our Lord and to faith in Him. Many of my friends are Artists who paint and sculpt and create art to communicate a Kingdom reality. The issue is not that creating art or any sincere expression of devotion to Christ is wrong. What is evil is the marketplace we've created to showcase product. In the beginning the market existed to serve the Art, now the Art exists to serve the marketplace. We have lost focus. Making money is now the main objective. Evangelism or edification or worship is secondary at best, if considered at all.

During my six years in the Christian Music Industry I slowly began to realize the sickness of it all. At first I saw the industry as a way to spread the Gospel and to provide a voice for talented musicians of faith. But soon I realized that it didn't matter if your music ministry was responsible for leading thousands to Christ each year. What mattered was record sales. If your CD's weren't selling at least 20,000 units per sales cycle you'd be dropped from the label in a heartbeat. It was, after all, a Record BUSINESS, and like every business making money and selling product is the very bottom line. Ministry is incidental, and sadly only useful in the context of marketing the product to your target audience, in order to drive more sales.

Like the money-changers in front of the Temple that Jesus chased away with a whip, the original idea was a good one; To provide animals for sacrifice so that people could enter the Temple and participate in the worship of God. However, when money got in the way the original vision was corrupted and the Temple became a marketplace which obscured access for the common man and made a mockery of real worship. The same is true today.

BACK TO JESUS
The tension still remains between the clear command of our Lord to "Go into all the world.." and a subculture that bears His Name, yet encourages a full retreat from the World and identifies membership based on purchasing the acceptable, branded product. The product carries a message that we should fear those outside of our group. It encourages non-involvement with the culture. It makes minimizing contact with those outside the subculture a preferable reality.

If Jesus modeled radical inclusion and commanded us to be known by our love for everyone, especially those who hate us, and a subculture emerges with His Name on it that encourages us to be radically exclusive and creates behavior by which we are known for our intolerance, hatred and condemnation of those outside our group, we must make a choice. Do we choose Jesus or do we choose the man-made subculture with his Name on it?

I choose Jesus.

If Jesus clearly teaches something, and another organization or person teaches the exact opposite we call that "Anti-Christ". To me it's plainly obvious that the Christian Subculture is "Anti-Christ" because it contradicts His message of inclusion, involvement and meaningful relationships with sinners.

I've said it before and I say it again; "Death to the Christian Subculture!"

BRINGING A CHANGE
Where can we fashion a whip and drive out the money-changers from the Temple? It's difficult because we now deal with this on a massive scale. Participation in this market-driven Christian Subculture is pervasive and intangible. There is no physical structure to kick over. There is no clear method for applying the whip necessary to drive them out.

All we can really do is to begin, one person at a time, to disassociate ourselves with this subculture. Stop participating. Stop identifying yourself as a follower of Jesus based on your purchases. Stop pandering to what the Christian Marketplace finds acceptable and palatable. Make Jesus your single source of Truth. Ask God to show you where you have replaced a Jesus way of life with a carefully branded subculture way of life. Escape the false notions of "Sacred" and "Secular" and just start living, as a disciple of Jesus, in this World (the only World), right now.

I declare a personal War against the Christian Subculture.

kg

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4 comments:

Jarred Lawrence said...

Awesome...Radical...Challenging! I believe the more we address this issue in our own lives the better. And the more we can address this with the younger generation the better. What are some practical ways we can begin to engage our christian culture with this issue?

oh, and I believe God is leading me to start a Christian T-Shirt Co. called Hell F@#$ers...who is with me ; )!

Ibrahim said...

Great article. It's interesting the way the Christian (typically evangelical) 'subculture' has re-emerged at a time when subcultures are generally no longer considered dangerous or radical.

The notion of a subculture developed in the Chicago School of sociology - "subculture" equaled juvenile delinquent. Then in the 70s the Birmingham School in the UK started focusing on English subcultues like punks and skinheads - communal expressions of identity from pissed off working class kids as well as middle class drop outs like the Hippies - you could add the Jesus Freaks or the Jesus People to this as well.

Since the early 90s, though, wok on "subcultures" has come to focus on things like rave cultures or X-Files fans - cultures that don't ask for any radical commitment or challenge society in any way. Ravers all all back in the office Monday morning, planning next weekend's blackout.

In this context, Christian subcultures embodied by t-shirts and WWJD jewelery makes perfect sense: it reduces belief to an act of consumption. Compare 70s punk or 80s hardcore to the rubbish that gets sold to us as 'punk' these days.

As you say, the Christian subculture is simply the Christian expression of consumer capitalism.

The only way to destroy it, then, is to destroy the allure that consumerism has and the power of capital. The problem is that in too many contexts Christianity and capitalism are seen to go hand-in-hand.

Ibrahim said...

Oh, yeah, and I meant to say on the other commenter's question "What are some practical ways we can begin to engage our christian culture with this issue?"

I think one example is to look back to embodiments of subculture's that aren't conformist liberal capitalist tools.

There's a sadly defunct Australian punk band called 'God so loved the world' - check out their myspace - in my opinion, they had one of the 3 best punk band names ever (up there with the sex pistols and dead kennedys) for the sheer outrageous gall of it.

A radical, anti-capitalist Christian punk band who released an album whose opening track was condemning the US gov. for genocide in New Orleans... before moving on to attacking mainstream capitalist expressions of relationships music, etc.

One of the GSLTW guys said Christianity means middle America as much as punk means Simple Plan...

NoahM said...

Ibrahim, is this the Australian punk band called 'God so loved the world' and the track condemning the US gov. for genocide in New Orleans? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qW_GsVQQ15s

Back to Keith's article, is it a case of consumerism replacing Jesus teaching, or a case of Christians not consuming enough of Jesus? Looking at all the church building locked up for most of the week, I'd say we don't consume enough of Jesus (arguments about whether we need buildings to consume Jesus being an entirely different issue).